Why did you choose to focus on mental health in Taylor Before and After?
Thank you for including Taylor and me as part of Mental Health Awareness Month!
As person who’s lived with depression for 22 years, and as a teacher seeing more and more students struggle with the condition, I felt called to craft a story about what it’s like to carry around depression today—among social media, news outlets, competition, pressures of school, family, and financial issues. For me, there’s been a desperation to try to push through those dark times— situational and clinical. I really loved that Rhoda Belleza–who acquired the project for MacMillan–picked up on that.
When I was Taylor’s age—13—in eighth grade in California, I rarely heard the word “depression.” We weren’t aware. Today is different—there’s greater understanding, more attention and acceptance, ways for us to get help and to feel less alone. People are waiting for us to reach out to them.
How have you gotten yourself through a hard time?
That’s a BEFORE prompt in the book—“What has helped you through a tough time?”—and Taylor writes how her closet saved her. But by that, she means more than jeans and an orange necklace; fashion may seem small, a tiny way of making through another day, but really, it’s having “a purpose, a future.”
I haven’t relied on my closet. But I’ve tried to pull myself together in other ways–getting outside, trying to compromise with my husband and kids, watering my plants, petting my cats, being an engaging teacher, applying for fellowships. I walk, hike, swim, and do yoga. I try to eat less treats than I crave. That’s all good work, but I still need medical help. I have a thorough doctor and a kind counselor. I wish Taylor had those resources, or took up Sister Anne’s offer to talk. It would’ve made DURING more endurable.
Instead, Taylor tries eating blueberries, doing jumping jacks, getting outside, forcing herself to join a club at school. For people with depression, there’s BEFORE and AFTER, and there’s DURING, which can feel like the hardest part. It can be heavy, overwhelming, and seemingly permanent. But at the center of those lonely times is the promise it will get better. It does get better.
And always, there’s writing. “A blank page is an invitation to healing.”
How does the setting reflect character and plot?
Like the state of Hawaii and the island of Oahu, Taylor is part of something bigger, though she doesn’t always feel like she is. Yet, even on her darkest days, there is beauty in the natural world around her, and that beauty is there for all of us, if we look to it. Of course, there are days when volcanic ash blows over Oahu from the Big Island—“heavy and suffocating and gray”–but there are also days the tradewinds blow that vog back out again, “so cool and light, whispering promises of hope and change, you feel new and calm at the same time, the simple ha breathing onto and into and all through you. You’re alive and whole but also still.”
So, there’s dark and light?
Yes! In life, in the book! On the way to school one day, my son, Rees, who was 15 or 16 at the time, asked if I always have to be so deep. I guess I do.
But also, I laugh—A LOT! I peppered the story with scuttling lizards, a kiss-gone-wrong, a cat that eats enchiladas. Taylor’s life is tough, but it’s also very rich! It’s full of everything!
Can you speak to the unconventional structure of the story?
I took a huge risk on format—moving Taylor between before and after her life falls apart. The narration isn’t straightforward, linear, and clear because mental health isn’t straightforward, linear, or clear.Memory is affected—fragmented, jumbled—and thinking, concentrating, and problem solving can be difficult. We piece together moving forward and back—like the ocean’s flow, its vastness and depth, its reach.
Depression is a disorder, so it made sense to me to present Taylor’s story in a dis-ordered way. The School Library Journal reviewed Taylor Before and After as “appropriately disorienting.” I love the power, the truth, the irony of that! I had to be brave to put my art out there, vulnerable to criticism, but I did it on behalf of the brave mental health community who fights to “see another sunrise.”
And also, the story is told completely through prompts in Taylor’s Language Arts class?
Yes! Every “chapter” is a different prompt off the whiteboard in Miss Wilson’s class.
I remember the first time I gave a writing prompt a student skipped right over, writing instead about the broken washing machine that had flooded her apartment. This showed me humans need an outlet for our worry, our sadness and frustration. Writing is an opportunity. We can share space with pain, and at the same time use written expression as a journey, a process, a navigation through it.
As a writer, mom, and writing teacher, I’ve seen the powerful healing of journaling…Getting our thoughts from our heads onto paper helps us with clarity and order. It’s empowering!!!
How have readers responded to the mental health thread?
Readers have AMAZED me!!!! They seem so thankful to have Taylor for a friend. And I’m grateful for their own stories!
The humanities chair at my college—a PhD in literature!—said he wished he’d read the book while his kids were Taylor’s age; he would’ve understood so much more about what they were going through, and could have been a more compassionate parent.
Since Taylor’s debut, I’ve been surprised to hear its impact on parents, teachers, counselors, librarians, and reviewers—as much as I’ve heard of its importance to sixth graders in Sacramento, for example.
It seems to break down the big picture of mental health in a way teens and those around them can understand.
I wrote Taylor for upper-middle-grade readers, which is a specific group. It straddles chapter books and YA–a unique and significant part of life, of growing up. When I was writing the story, I had early teens in my home and on my mind; I never thought about grown-up readers, so the book’s impact on them has been the biggest surprise of my publishing process.
And, there are the wonderful teens I was hoping to reach. One reader shared he’d made a big mistake during high school, and after reading Taylor, he could see the impact that mistake had had on his younger sister. He was remorseful, but also optimistic. There was still a future for both of them. They could move forward.
What is the backstory of the Author’s Note?
Ah, this is really lovely…Weslie Turner, my wise editor at MacMillan, really worked with me to get the wording here just right. We wanted support to feel accessible, relatable, and normalized. I’m not a medical worker, but I’m a person living with mental illness, and a sister. In the Author’s Note, along with resources, I share my 26-year old brother Mac’s story. He’s been on all sides of depression. It’s an ongoing challenge. He and I have been there for each other, for other folks, and have asked for, received, and offered support. There is help. There is hope. Eventually, Taylor realizes that when she shares her story with Henley.
What is one way we can support each other?
Taylor knows her mom is right: “the hard thing is the right thing.” Straight up, we can all be kinder to each other, to think again before judging someone. It might not be easy—we can see Taylor really struggle with the choice to be kind to her frenemy toward the end of the story—but the smallest kindnesses make a huge difference. They matter.
And what three words would you say to someone who suffers from a mental disorder?
YOU matter! Okay, that’s only two words. But, it’s everything.
National Endowment for the Humanities fellow Jennie Englund began Taylor Before and After during a teaching institute on Oahu. She lives in Oregon, where she teaches college research writing and firefighters.